By Ashley Coates. Published 07/12/2012
“When I started in the business there were only ten real film schools in the country, now there are thousands of students graduating every year. It’s a dream job, it is a job that many people desire but it’s a Herculian effort to get seen by a wide audience”.
Today the company that Allan Niblo co-founded in 2002 is one of the most successful independent production companies in Europe, releasing The Football Factory, The Sweeney, Streetdance and Horrid Henry to commercial and critical acclaim. Its productions reflect an interest in developing homegrown talent and Vertigo has backed a number of emerging actors and directors who were just starting to make the move into cinema.
The impression many people have of the film industry is one of red carpet award ceremonies, glamorous actors and the romance of putting together a great film, but the realities of getting a film financed, shot and distributed are very far from romantic. The margins for British independent film in particular are very tight, few producers make much money from the industry, and just getting distributed is, in Allan’s words “a Herculian effort”.
Allan’s beginnings in the industry are unusual. He completed a competitive training program for a major bank, RBS, but after four years in finance, Allan turned it all in to become, a “skate bum”. If anything you might have expected Allan to move into the business side of film, working in international sales or finance, but the day he passed his final banking exams he flew to California to get a taste for the way things are done there before returning to the UK to make promotional videos for local musicians.
Back in the UK he performed a number of roles- film student, cameraman, director of photography, film lecturer – before getting what you might call his “big break”, producing Human Traffic. Starring Danny Dyer and John Simm, and eventually bought by Miramax, the film put Allan “on the map”.
Now Allan oversees Vertigo’s vertically-integrated operations at its office in North London and produces several feature-length films every year. The company covers production, post-production (including 3D films), as well as distribution.
His advice to anyone interested in joining him in the film business is to make sure you really want to do it, having a love of the moving image is key, but also to be prepared to work extremely hard as nothing will be handed to you on a plate.
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There can’t be many people in British independent film who trained as bankers, how did you end up in a bank and why did you leave?
My best subjects at school were Maths and Physics so I got As in all that and went straight from that thinking the best route to take was to go to the Royal Bank of Scotland. I got on an accelerated training program they put me on to do the industry’s banking exams so I passed all of them in four years and literally the day after I passed them I moved to California.
I was skating a lot and playing in punk bands and it was the exact opposite of banking so the day I passed I realised that it was not for me so I did the polar-opposite and became a skate bum.
Was it not quite difficult taking yourself out of that solid career path and doing something completely different?
It was a massive thing because my dad was really disappointed and the bank never forgave me because they spent a lot of money putting me through that training program and there were a thousand applicants for it and only two places.
At the time, back when I was younger, especially where I came from, if you got an apprenticeship or a traineeship, you stayed with that company for life, it wasn’t like the transience that’s around these days. So it was a big jump.
So how did your parents react?
They weren’t happy, to be honest with you, but I knew I didn’t want to work in a bank for the rest of my life.
Was that where the direct connection to what you are doing now started? Being in California and thinking: “I should be doing this”?
Yes, exactly, it was a real light bulb moment, it was where I really felt: “the moving image, what a wonderful thing”. It was literally – “I’m coming from a small town in Scotland”, I wanted to experience California and the opposite side of the world and live the dream life and see what I could discover out there.
I had been into movies, since Channel 4 started in the 80s, I was always into Turkish and Iranian cinema and Russian cinema but I never thought I could have a career in movies in any shape or form. The school’s careers teachers back in Scotland just laughed at you back then.
What was the next step?
I bought a video camera and started making pop promos for local bands. It started to look good after a while and I applied to undergraduate film school and I got into Newport Film School. I spent two years training there, put a good showreel together, applied to the National Film School and got in as a cameraman there.
Is film school a route you would recommend to someone today?
I had a great time at the NFTS, it’s one of the elite film schools of the world, it is an amazing place to meet people and be inspired by people and to learn. But it’s not the only route, plenty of people can take other routes. Loving movies is the most important thing.
What was the route to founding your own production company?
So, I went from the National Film School where I was a Director of Photography, to making commercials in television for about two or three years doing that making quite good money. Then I decided I didn’t want to be a DoP anymore so I went back to education as a film lecturer at university, the University of Wales, spent four years there and just as those four years were coming to an end and I was looking for something to do, I met a student and I said “let’s make a film”.
He was only 24 at the time and couldn’t believe I wanted to make a film with him and that became Human Traffic. I managed to raise the money for that as a producer and it was a big hit. We sold it to Miramax at the time and it put me on the map.
Was that the moment you realised you were actually now in the industry on a serious level?
Yes, that was my real entry point to the film industry. I had worked in commercials and television for a bit but that was the entry into the movie business. The film went to all these film festivals all over the world and I got to meet a whole range of people.
It’s interesting you talk about meeting people because the industry does have a bit of a reputation for the whole “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” sort of thing, have you encountered much in the way of nepotism in your career?
Nepotism does exist but nepotism exists in all walks of life I don’t think it’s peculiar to the film business, one thing’s for sure is if you have got talent it will show through. You can be given the opportunity but you’ve still got to prove yourself by doing it.
The cream will rise to the top…
Exactly whether you are a good director or a good cameraman, your talent will shine through. Someone can open the door for you but you have to perform.
How did The Football Factory come to be produced?
After Human Traffic I bought the rights to Football Factory and then we asked Nick Love to get involved because I had seen his first film, which I loved, Goodbye Charlie Brown. Nick at the time had been in development and he hadn’t yet come across his next film after Goodbye Charlie Bright so when we approached him he loved the subject matter and a few months later wrote a screenplay and that was it.
In terms of selecting the projects you want to pursue, what do you look for as a producer?
Vertigo is about two things, it’s about establishing a really great business, so making a mark in the landscape in film and being a sustainable company that’s taking risks and being adventurous. In that respect we are a film company and a distribution company, we jointly own a sales company with Channel 4 and Ingenious called Protagonist.
We’ve also got a post-production facility that does state-of-the-art post-production in Berlin and we’ve got a 3D company. So we are being quite adventurous in terms of how we set the business up and that’s very exciting.
Separate to that, in terms of the actual movies that we decide to produce, it’s about a range of product. I’d say we are known for a commercial eye, which is quite a rare thing in British film actually. It’s only more recently that material is becoming more commercial in this country, for a long time it was deemed a dirty word.
We are doing a range of films for family entertainment, like Horrid Henry, Streetdance and The Wombles, all the way to bold experimental work like Monsters, where there’s no script, there’s one guy who has to do all this CGI and yet is able to make a film that has an impact on the world stage. Or Bronson, a prison drama, an elevated-genre movie, is how I would describe it, all the way through to big commercial films like The Sweeney and bigger projects that we are setting up at the moment.
How do you divide up your time within the business with such a lot going on? How do you know what to prioritise?
There’s quite a lot of housekeeping to be done running your own company. We now have about 55 members of staff across three companies and for each company whether it’s Protagonist or Post Republic or Vertigo, it takes time.
We each have different methods of working within the company. Nick is obviously a writer-director, concentrating on his own projects, and writes and directs projects for other people potentially as well, whereas James and I are very much producers, we each have projects that we work on individually but we always collaborate. Rupert runs the distribution but also produces as well. Him and I have a close working relationship over the product, from distribution to production.
Do you feel that the emergence of the internet is creating opportunities for filmmakers or actually eating into your end of the business, the extra low-budget YouTube films and the like?
Nothing can eat into the business because of the dominance of Hollywood in the cinemas, and in television and DVD as well. There is only a small piece of the pie left for everyone else and it is up to us to make that pie bigger.
If you’re a filmmaker now you’ve never had a better opportunity because not only can you pick up a video camera, which is accessible to everybody, you can edit it on your laptop and you can find your music online. You can do the distribution yourself and you can get yourself noticed via a website so the entire process is at your fingertips and it’s the first time making movies has been like that. It’s been democratised in a really clever way I think.
I have yet to see many people take advantage of that in this country, they are still looking for big budgets to enable them to make their movies but some of the movies that have inspired us didn’t have that. For example, we made In Search of a Midnight Kiss, which was made for $15,000. There was a director who was frustrated in the studio system and a bunch of actor friends who said, “to hell with it, let’s make a movie now” and picked up a camera, started working on it and a few months later, a film popped out that got exceptional reviews.
So if you were starting now, how would you go about establishing yourself in the film industry?
If I was starting now I would be really interested in alternative business models. When Vertigo first started up we got a lot of attention by being the first company to shoot digitally, the first company to micro-finance films, the first company to set up a wholly integrated post-production facility.
We were the first company to work with MySpace on a movie, we were seen as pioneers, trying things out. Not all of it worked but at least we were seen as new and fresh and cutting-edge, that goes a long way in the business if you’ve got a perception of freshness. So if you’re saying, “how would you start now?”
I’d say, look at a fresh angle that will get you noticed and they’re out there, modes of distribution, massive companies whose advertising is restricted that might want to make movies to promote their products, online distribution and new modes of making movies with things like go-pro cameras. Never before has there been a better chance to make films that are low budget and appeal to the masses.
You would do this right now, starting from scratch, say as a student coming out of university?
Yes, absolutely. I’d be talking to businesses like Red Bull and Relentless Energy drinks. I’d be looking at ways you can connect businesses with an audience the way that viral videos can. How do I own all the rights and keep it all for myself? How do I break the traditional models that exist out there? If I were starting out again, I would be looking at all of that.
Most young people who are interested in TV and film are recommended to take the runner route, starting at the bottom making tea, is a strategy you would support? I guess it depends on the area you are interested in.
So if someone wanted career advice coming out of school? It’s a difficult question to answer that. When I started in the business there were only ten real film schools in the country, now there are thousands of students graduating every year. It’s a dream job, it is a job that many people desire but it’s a Herculian effort to get seen by a wide audience.
You’ve got to have absolute determination to find out what your goal is and how you achieve your goal. If you are a director the best thing to do is make an amazing short film that wins loads of awards and blows people away at festivals, you need one or two of them. If you are exceptional in that area and rise above the pack, you’ll get noticed by the FilmFours, the BFIs, the Vertigos, we’ll pick that up. We’re looking for the hottest talent.